S. Jonathan Wiesen


On his book Creating the Nazi Marketplace: Commerce and Consumption in the Third Reich

Cover Interview of March 21, 2011

A close-up

Your browsing reader might want to start with Chapter 4, which is a case study of a consumer research organization founded in the Nazi years.

The Society for Consumer Research (GfK) began in 1934 in Nuremberg, and today it is Germany’s largest market research organization—in fact, one of the largest in the world.  The GfK’s early years under Nazism provide an illuminating look into the meaning of consumption and the practice of marketing under Hitler.

The GfK’s advisory board included executives and owners from a variety of German companies, which commissioned dozens of reports on consumer attitudes about products like cigarettes, automobiles, and perfumes.

Until the end of the war, members of the GfK met to discuss effective marketing techniques, the links between gender and consumption, and the relationship between consumers and the Volk.  The GfK defended brand names against cheap imitation products, probed the nature of individual desire, and explored the merits of applied psychology in their research.  And they read through American department store catalogues—like Sears and Montgomery Ward—to discover which time saving devices might be desirable in Germany.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect is the extent to which the GfK’s practices resembled the work of market research in other countries—like the United States.  Even under the watchful eye of a police state, GfK associates went door-to-door, interviewing people about what products and ad campaigns they liked or hated.  They entered private homes, complimented the housewife for her decorating taste, and then proceeded to talk about panty hose, hair sprays, cars, and foods.  They were perhaps surprised to hear consumers on occasion complaining openly about both the intrusiveness of advertisements and attempts by the Nazi state to regulate consumption.

The mix of support for the regime, enthusiasm for name brands, optimism about future abundance, and anger about wartime regulations revealed itself in full force in the GfK reports.